Thursday, April 30, 2020

In short: The Grudge (2020)

For the first twenty minutes of its run time or so, I was all hyped to complain that Nicolas Pesce’s new US version of the classic (and still terribly creepy and disturbing) Japanese Ju-On franchise is not as bad as I was led to believe by the rest of the internet. However, I left that impression by the wayside rather quickly once the film started in earnest on its long, slow, tedious and pretty pointless slog through various flashbacks and two very slow police investigations whose structural mirroring may have sounded clever during the development of the script, but in practice simply doubles the tedium for very little reason. Well, there’s one line in the script that attempts to actually provide a reason for the film’s mind-numbing structure, but one single line that’s also supposed to explain the film’s thin thematic throughline to the audience does hardly distract from the fact the structure simply doesn’t add anything to the film; nor from how little the film actually does with its theme of grief and threatened and doomed family ties.

Sure, the Japanese films of the series often do something comparable – though actually more complicated because those are not just flashbacks - structurally, but in those films, the structure puts an extra emphasis on the inevitability of the characters’ eventual doom, where Pesce’s movie only emphasises how darn repetitive the film is. And honestly, the various shock scenes aren’t worth repeating, mostly going for watered down versions of the Japanese originals, replacing the highly characteristic creatures of the Japanese film with generic “revenant versions of former victims of the curse” that are just painfully bland, as well as ineffectively used.

Given the two good to great films Pesce made before this, I’m a bit disturbed that “bland” and “tedious” are the main descriptors I have for his attempt at a more mainstream horror affair. So that’s a success, right?

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Scorpio (1973)

Aging CIA agent Cross (Burt Lancaster) has been handling assassination business for the CIA for quite some years now, running freelancers and patsies to assist in the murders of heads of states and politicians the US would rather see dead. In the last couple of years, Cross has often used Jean Laurier (Alain Delon) – going under the codename of “Scorpio” as his freelance partner. The two men have grown somewhat fond of one another, as far as the age difference and the business they are in allows for this sort of thing at all.

So, when the CIA decides to get rid of Cross for some reason and decides to hire Jean to do the job after their own people have screwed things up rather badly, the younger man isn’t terribly enthusiastic about the job. It takes a faked case of heroin possession and a rather great job offer to convince Jean; but even then, his heart clearly isn’t in it, and he often seems to be outright looking for reasons not to kill Cross.

Cross for his part only wants out of the game completely. He could go over to the Soviets – he even has an actual friend there in the old school KGB operative Zharkov (Paul Scofield) – but there’s really no future in that. Plus, at a certain age, a guy just wants to live somewhere nice with his wife without having to think about death and destruction.

There are a lot of secrets and lies for both men to uncover during the whole affair, and eventually, both will pay with the last of their illusions about the world they move in, but also their illusions about the possibility of a normal life.

As the regulars among my imaginary readers know, I am not terribly fond of director/old sleazebag Michael Winner, and find many of his films unpleasant in a way that’s neither enjoyable nor instructive.

Scorpio, though, is definitely a film where this old criticism of mine doesn’t work, for everything here that’s brutal and unpleasant needs to be as brutal and unpleasant as it is to make the film work, to portray the world of spies and assassins the protagonists work in as cruel, cold and driven by an utilitarianism that has become so automatic it is now completely divorced from ideology, or passion, or even the idea that terrible things have to be done to reach a goal that is right. In this world, it’s obvious that Cross, as one of the last men standing of an old guard that still believed in things, needs to be destroyed; but then, as the film will eventually reveal, he has been corrupted as much as the rest of the world, he just wears a nicer face and perhaps tells himself that he is still different.

In fact, it’s Jean who will turn out to be the true innocent of the characters, still genuinely clinging to human feelings like love, and an idea of friendship that’s not secretly based on how useful his friends can eventually be to him. And of course, it’s this core of actual humanity that will be crushed during his hunt for Cross, until he has nobody and believes in nothing anymore.

Very atypical for its very cynical director, the film seems genuinely sad and angry about this state of affairs, treating the terrible things that eventually happen to all good people here with surprising dignity, giving them true emotional resonance by showing – a first in a Winner movie as far as I am concerned – a degree of restraint. The dialogue (script by David W. Rintels and Gerald Wilson) is uncommonly thoughtful too, meditating on things like the mechanisms of the spy world, but also the worth of ideology, or the relationship between aging men who have seen quite a few terrible things.

Which doesn’t mean that Scorpio is lacking in ruthlessness and brutality, Winner just manages to find the proper amount of both so he’s not losing the whole of the film to them. So no worries, fans of more traditional Winner outings, the action is still as brutal as it got in ‘73, the rest of Scorpio just isn’t buried under it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In short: Der Fluch der grünen Augen (1963)

aka Cave of the Living Dead

aka Night of the Vampires

A small town situated in what I assume is supposed to be somewhere in the Balkans is struck by a series of murders of young women. There’s something really strange going on there, for whenever a new victim is killed, the whole place suffers from a sudden and inexplicable loss of electricity. The corpses of the victims show a tendency to simply disappear the first night after they have been found, too.

When big time police inspector Frank Doren (Adrian Hoven) is sent to the village, he quickly learns that the villagers have their own explanation for the occurrences. Obviously, the vampire women living(?) in a cave in the area are at fault. Doren isn’t exactly a believer but the strangeness mounts up high enough he soon takes instruction from the village wise woman and begins to accept the idea of vampires. Why, perhaps the creepy Professor von Adelsberg (Wolfgang Preiss) living in the local castle with his black servant John (John Kitzmiller) and his assistant Maria (Erika Remberg) may have something to do with it all? Doren’ll investigates that one, too, for he has the creeps, I mean hots, for Maria.

There were only a handful of German horror movies made during the 60s, and usually, the spookiest German movies got was in the Edgar Wallace krimis. Hungarian director Ákos von Ráthonyi’s Der Fluch der grünen Augen (which would properly be translated as “The Curse of the Green Eyes”) is one of these few films, and once you’ve watched it, you just might be happy there wasn’t more of this stuff being made, for these are pretty dire proceedings.

Von Ráthonyi’s direction is as bland and visually boring as possible, far below the standards of the Wallace films and more on the level of the sort of local US production that is proud whenever a scene doesn’t use a nailed-down camera, or a Poverty Row movie directed by William Beaudine. During the vampire attacks (spoiler?), von Ráthonyi actually tries to use shadows and shots of snaking vampire fingers in the spirit of expressionist silent cinema but the attempts have such an amateurish and unconvincing air, I found myself cringing and waiting for the blandness and utter disregard for mood building to return.

The script is rather on the dire side, too, with barely anything of interest happening whatsoever, and most of that paced so as to be easily overtaken by a snail. The characters are one-note and bland and our supposed hero is an unsympathetic creep even by the standards of 1963, making grabby hands at every woman he encounters, something the film treats as an admirable trait. Not surprisingly, the treatment of Kitzmiller’s character, who acts like a child and speaks in the sort of accent a kid would come up with for that thing Germans are most afraid of, a black person, is pretty terrible too. To be fair, the film is down on the villagers treating the guy as if he were the devil himself, but its own treatment of the character isn’t much better, instead of horribly racist like the villagers ending up being pretty racist indeed. Which would be much easier to overlook in a film that has anything else to offer.

Alas, Der Fluch der Grünen Augen isn’t that film.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Blood on the Moon (1948)

A letter from his old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston) asks luckless and pretty beaten cowboy Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) to come to a never named Indian reservation far from his home to help Tate out with something he doesn’t specify, but that is clearly important.

That “something” turns out to be a con cooked up by Riling and a corrupt Indian Agent. Until now, the reservation’s meat has been provided from the cattle herd of John Lufton (Tom Tully), but the agent hasn’t accepted their newest deal and is throwing Lufton and his herd off the reservation. If they aren’t gone in a couple of days, the military’s coming in to confiscate the cattle. It would be quite a shame if Lufton couldn’t leave the reservation in time for some reason and had to sell his cattle off for cut-rates to someone. To keep Lufton on the reservation, Riling has riled up the local homesteaders whose lands Lufton’s herds will have to cross, cooking up his own pocket ranch war. Lufton’s pretty stubborn however (and really in the rights), but Riling’s too greedy not to hire gunmen to keep Lufton where he wants him.

Garry’s none too happy with the whole affair, but he has been beaten down by life so much he still agrees to help Riling out with his shady business. However, his conscience can’t be kept silent for long once people start losing their lives, and eventually, drawn by it and coaxed by Lufton’s tough daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes) who sees the man he could be in him more than the one he is right now, he is going to change sides.

Stylistically and thematically, Robert Wise’s very fine RKO western Blood on the Moon is a film very close to the noir genre. Mitchum’s basically playing the kind of guy he was typically asked to play in noirs, just wearing a differently shaped hat, while being faced with a western version of a noir plot. Riling’s a figure more common in the noir than the western too, a sometimes charming sociopath who can’t see a conscience or any kind of personal ethos as anything but a weakness he can use but never actually comprehend. He’s also the film’s femme (well, homme) fatal(e), given his predatory relationship with Lufton’s other daughter, Carol (Phyllis Thaxter). That’s a nice twist on the formula, and not a completely surprising one in a film that puts a lot of effort into not letting its two female characters fall into clichés, but treats them as psychologically complex personalities just like the male characters. You could even argue that Amy’s the actual hero of the film, and if anyone would ever remake this one, I hope she’d very visibly be. I suspect co-writer Lillie Hayward will have had something to do with the film’s more fleshed-out female characters, though what I’ve read of the novels of Luke Short, on whose work this is based, does feature comparatively strong female characters for its time and genre.

Uncommon for a western – but of course very typical for a noir – much of the film takes place by night and in the dark, DP Nicholas Musuraca bathing the west in expressionist and often pretty damn claustrophobic shadows that turn the very familiar world of the quasi-mythological west unfamiliar again. It’s no wonder that Mitchum’s Jim Garry has his troubles seeing the light in these surroundings.

Of course, despite all these parallels, philosophically, Blood on the Moon isn’t a noir at all. It may have an honest and somewhat ruthless streak in its treatment of characters and their inner struggles, but where a noir hero more often than not will either die following his better nature or survive by forsaking it, this film follows the more hopeful rules of the western, where redemption can indeed be found without dying and where change for the better is a possibility a man can grasp and hold onto. Here, psychological struggles can be won and someone can indeed become a better person through it.

This could of course lead to an unpleasantly tacky kind of ending, or one of those classic movie happy ends that feel ridiculously tacked onto a film of quite a different spirit, but Wise, the writers and the cast play it as a perfectly logical consequence of what we’ve learned about these characters, turning the happy end into something that still fits the psychological depth of everyone involved.

While he’s at it, Wise also adds some cracking good scenes of western action to the mix, gives character actors like Tully and Walter Brennan their chances to shine besides fine performances by Mitchum and a very young yet note perfect Bel Geddes, turning this into as perfect a western as one can encounter, despite some of its elements being perfectly atypical of the genre.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Decide For Yourself

The Hunt (2020): Craig Zobel’s satirical horror movie (written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof) has apparently managed to incense the shouty people on both sides of US politics (the places where nuance goes to die). Which, having seen the movie, I very much suspect is what the film was aiming at, trying to express irritation with the way both sides tend to turn their opposite numbers into sub-human caricatures with a holier-than-thou approach lacking in any kind of self-reflection. Alas, I can only suspect that’s what the film is actually trying to say, for the script is an abominable mess of “ironic” clichés, plot twists that make no frigging sense, and a tendency to be vague where actual satire needs to be precise, and a general goofiness in the set-ups of its action that robs the film of all tension too. Otherwise, it’s certainly professionally made, but that sort of competence really doesn’t help against any of these flaws; it really makes them all the more visible.

Bloodshot (2020): Also missing the mark is this (sort of) superhero movie based on the Valiant character starring Vin Diesel as a revived super soldier who is a bit more upmarket than your Universal Soldiers or your Robocops. The script by Jeff Wadlow and Eric Heisserer has exactly one good idea, but to get there, one has to wade through all the usual action movie clichés, directed at best indifferently, at worst badly by former effects man Dave Wilson (who is yet another example that special effects knowledge isn’t the only thing a director needs, even in effects heavy genres). That twist is pretty clever but happens at least fifteen minutes too late, and is of import for about five minutes, after which the film returns to the same old action movie clichés its twist is supposedly meant to subvert, still directed without punch or verve, featuring a Diesel who seems terribly bored by the whole affair. I don’t blame him.

The Gentlemen (2019): But let’s end this on a more pleasant note (well, perhaps not pleasant, exactly), with Guy Ritchie’s return to the self-conscious gangster action comedy. It’s honestly pretty great, the meta elements never getting in the way of the film, the jokes generally hitting as well as do the action and the old ultra-violence. It’s certainly not nice (and one could certainly raise an eyebrow at the film’s racial politics if one wanted) but it’s so fun I didn’t find myself caring. The acting ensemble with guys and gals like Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Colin Farrell and an honest to gosh brilliant Hugh Grant seems to have a lot of fun, too, and better, they do project that fun rather nicely, too.

The only major thing I’m not too keen on here is Charlie Hunnam sticking out like a sore thumb by presenting his usual charisma vacuum, but the rest of the film is much to fun for that ruin it for me.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Late Phases (2014)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

His son Will (Ethan Embry) helps move blind, retired soldier Ambrose (Nick Damici again proving the fact he’s one of today’s great genre actors when it comes to playing working class people - if you watch the right movies) into a gated retirement community. Things haven’t gone well between the two men for years, Ambrose wearing his sightlessness like an armour around his emotions, and Will clearly having lost most of his patience with the old man years ago.

On his very first night, something that looks a lot like a werewolf to the audience kills Ambrose’s friendly neighbour. Afterwards, it attacks him as well, but thanks to his seeing eye dog Shadow (Raina) and the curious fact that the ocularly disabled are still allowed to own guns in the US of A (!?) the old man stays safe. Shadow, alas dies. The local authorities don’t seem to let a little thing like a dead old lady and a nearly murdered blind man disturb them much. The area of the gated community is well-known for animal attacks, so the whole thing ends up with everybody around shrugging it off as just one of these things.

Everyone, that is, except for Ambrose, who very quickly decides there’s a werewolf attacking during the night of the full moon, and that he’s the man who will get rid of it, blindness be damned. Consequently, Ambrose starts preparing for the next full moon, by very pointedly not burying his dog while still running around with a shovel, buying a huge gravestone, and annoying the most easily annoyed group of neighbours with his mixture of cantankerous humour and soldier-as-working-class member directness in an attempt to ferret out the werewolf. He somewhat comes to like the local priest (Tom Noonan, winner of this week’s price for the most impressive off-handed performance in a movie) but there’s still a werewolf to kill and – so Ambrose seems to plan – to die decently in the process, on one’s own terms.

Who’d have thought that director Adrián García Bogliano would go from often sleazy – yet certainly worthwhile - backyard horror and exploitation to making something like this (or his last two or three movies before it) - a clever, character-based piece of low budget horror that seems old-fashioned in all the good ways? Though I should probably call it classicist instead of old-fashioned, for Bogliano’s particular forte here lies in evoking the spirit of low budget genre films of the 70s and 80s. Not in a “retro” kind of manner, mind you, but via an approach to his material that seems inspired by a different era without using that era’s outward appearance as a signifier of coolness.

So his first US film – for Larry Fessenden’s (who of course also has his mandatory mini-role, this time around as a mildly sleazy gravestone seller) Glass Eye Pix – isn’t very interested in irony, or in jump scares, or in a making a movie based on other movies, but rather in exploring his main character with the help of some suspenseful werewolf shenanigans. This works out very nicely for the audience and the film, thanks to a script by Eric Stolze that uses a not exactly original character and problem (the capital-m Man who can’t express his feelings, and pushes everyone away he cares about; the old man looking for a decent way to die), and a set-up that could feel painfully gimmicky exceedingly well. And while this certainly isn’t the first (nor will it be the last) film about a man who only ever expresses himself through violence (for Ambrose’s often very funny cantankerousness is a mild form of violence too) I’ve seen this year, I don’t think there will be many others that’ll manage to make the character feel quite as real, and that are able to show the flawed humanity behind the mask without feeling the need to lay the blame for his flaws on everyone else.

As the film plays out, I found Ambrose’s (too) late attempt to reach out to his son to be quite touching, with Bogliano and Stolze resisting the temptation of laying it on too thick. The film isn’t just about Ambrose and his emotional problems, though, it also explores his and other characters’ reaction to their aging, to the realization that they are indeed in the last part of their lives and won’t ever be able to make up for their sins perceived and real, and never be able to truly change again. Unless they are a werewolf, of course, but that’s not the sort of change that does much for one’s personal development.

And while this all sounds rather nice in a character study sort of way, Late Phases also works well as a suspenseful little werewolf film. There aren’t – of course, given the film’s financial means – many large set pieces, but Bogliano has grown really good at staging suspense scenes with whatever means he has available, as well as at creating the correct mood for the tale he’s going to tell, pacing the character parts and the action effortlessly and actually building to quite a fine climax.

There are a few niggles to be had with the film, but there's really only one larger point I can come up with. It's the werewolf. While the make-up and costume certainly has individual character, it also looks a bit too much like a costume, and a very cute one at that, with Bogliano spending no effort at all hiding how awkward it looks in action. If that sort of thing distracts you terribly, I foresee distraction; I can cope with a weakness like it when the movie surrounding it is as clever and tight as Late Phases is.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

In short: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1996)

If were a cynical man, I’d call this, the first cinematic animated outing by the team that brought us the truly classic “Batman: The Animated Series” a low effort film. But that’s mostly because the film aesthetically, in its love for media of the 30s and 40s and in its writing and philosophy as well as in its cast – of course including the Batvoice all Batvoices are measured against, Kevin Conroy and the just as perfect Joker Mark Hamill etc - is pretty much a longer, somewhat more costly episode of the TV show. Of course, in the case of BTAS, that’s more of a compliment than a criticism, unless one wants to complain about there being too many good things in the world when one encounters more than one good thing. Me, I’m rather happy with as many good things as possible existing, so a long, even more intricate version of a B:TAS episode is a perfectly lovely thing to me.

That is, of course, also because this version of the Batman is pretty much a perfect classicist version of the character, moving through an art deco Gotham the intermingles wonderfully with a plot that suggests a meeting of this Batman with various noir films when he comes upon a murderous vigilante (and yes, Batman not killing is important, whatever a certain director thinks or, alas, babbles, as much as is, say, The Punisher, indeed killing) as well as the woman (Dana Delaney) who nearly made him rethink becoming the Dark Knight. There are so many nuances and subtle touches, visually and in the writing, here, the intelligence, the love for classic Hollywood as well as for the Dark Detective himself basically jump off screen in every single scene.

The filmmakers - directing credits go to Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm and Kevin Altieri, and writing to Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves – repeat everything they did right with the TV show, make it just a little bigger, and turn out something rather magical.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Becoming (2020)

A side trip on the way to her parents turns out rather differently for the couple of Lisa (Penelope Mitchell) and Alex (Toby Kebbell) than they probably would have hoped for. Alex has no family left anymore, but Lisa has managed to find his single living relative Glen (Jeff Daniel Phillips), and has talked Alex into a visit while they are out and about on the highway anyway.

Something’s not at all right with Glen, though. It’s not “just” that he seems to be abusive towards his wife Annie (Melissa Bolona), there’s a vibe of even greater wrongness surrounding him. As it turns out, he is possessed by a non-corporeal entity I’m just gonna call “Mr Toxic Masculinity” from now on, a thing that simple jumps from his old host to another one when the old one dies. And the thing clearly sees Alex – particularly with Lisa as a bonus victim thrown into the mix – as a rather more attractive proposition, so a murder-“suicide” later, Alex starts to slowly but surely change into a much nastier man.

It takes some time of pretty surreal encounters until the change is complete and Alex, who was a much less than perfect guy already, as Lisa will also learn, turns into a complete monster.

Lisa does manage to acquire some useful exposition via the son of one of Mr Toxic Masculinity’s former victims (Jason Patric), but it will take some time and suffering until she can go through with the rather radical method of getting rid of the thing at least for a time he proposes.

I am rather pleasantly surprised by Omar Naim’s Becoming. It’s certainly not a perfect film – especially the third act suffers under a not terribly climactic finale and a dissatisfying open ending – but there’s a lot of good in the film too. Its use of a monster that’s basically all that’s wrong with certain men but even worse than that because it corrupts and destroys those men who aren’t like it and then in turn abuses their wives and girlfriends using their bodies is very strong, and certainly further improved by using a female perspective to look at this shit, trying not to exploit domestic violence for cheap thrills but to evoke audience identification with its victims.

Naim’s decision to make the relationship between Lisa and Alex not perfect and simple (which is mostly Alex’s fault, it seems) is rather well thought through too. This way, the film’s not pretending that men need to be possessed by malevolent forces to do bad things.

Being me, I did of course particularly enjoy the phase of the film when Alex is slowly hollowed out by Mr Toxic Masculinity, which provides rather a lot of the good kind of emotional pathos, but also gives Naim the opportunity to create a couple of very cool scenes in which the world around Alex and Lisa stops working as it usually does, and identities shift in disturbing and un-real ways.

Mitchell and Kebbell give some properly great performances for this sort of thing too, Kebbell effortlessly selling the shift between Alex the flawed but human guy and Alex the monster out of Miramax’s producer suite, while Mitchell is tasked not only to be the heroine of the piece but also to sell us on the threat the new version of Alex is, as well as her slow recognition of what she’ll need to do to survive and needs to play over the weakness of the final act.

However, despite those landing troubles and Naim’s not terribly creative visual style, Becoming is still a very interesting piece of modern horror, certainly one worth watching, and most certainly one that makes me very interested in the director’s next movie.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

In short: Avengement (2019)

One scarred and pissed-off man with very frightening metal teeth we will soon enough learn to be called Cain Burgess (Scott Adkins), walks into a pub (after knocking out some guards) to hold a bunch of gangsters hostage. In flashbacks, he tells the gents what made him so angry.

Turns out, Cain once was a retired boxer, making the mistake of asking his gangster-brother Lincoln (Craig Fairbrass) for a loan to open a gym. Lincoln, apparently a man of principles, doesn’t lend money to his relations, though, and, apparently also being a prick, he asks Cain for a little criminal favour in return for the money. Cain’s just supposed to steal a bag from a particular woman. An unfortunate series of events leaves said woman dead and Cain in prison for manslaughter, where his brother, thinking Cain wants to squeal on a criminal business he knows very little about, sends wave after wave of killers after him.

Which eventually leads to a very scarred, hardened and angry Cain standing in Lincoln’s pub.

On a good day, Avengement’s director Jesse V. Johnson is one of the best filmmakers in the contemporary low budget made for whatever you want to watch it on that isn’t a cinema action movie sphere, helped along by a long association with Scott Adkins, as everybody should know one of the best actors/screen fighters working in this realm.

Avengement is certainly one of the better cooperations between the two, delivering the expected cheap yet crazed and excellently choreographed melee combats – Johnson fortunately belonging to the school of directors who actually want the audience to see what’s going on there – but also using the film’s episodic flashback structure to deepen the characterisation. Now, I’m not talking about the sort of psychological exploration French arthouse cinema loves (often to the detriment of being actually engaging to anyone not sharing a given director’s favourite psychological ideas), but Johnson does give Cain enough substance to make him rather more interesting than I expected him to be going in. It’s certainly an interesting move to provide the guy with more of an end goal than simply killing off his horrible brother, turning the usual vengeance business somewhat less egotistical than typical in this sub-genre, easily making it much easier to root for this particular tough guy once the film tells the audience what he has done beside murdering a lot of rude men.

For an action film, the whole affair has a lot of dialogue, too. Most of it is in a surprisingly fun post-Tarantino style mix of profanity and cleverness with a nice, quick, flow to it, spoken by actors who seem to enjoy the whole affair a lot, providing breathing space between action sequences that’s actually as entertaining as watching Adkins kicking ass (and getting his ass kicked).

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Ghosts of Kagami Pond (1959)

aka Ghost Story: Depth of Kagami

Original title: Kaidan Kagami-ga-fuchi

Some time (this isn’t a film for historical precision) in feudal Japan. Kinbei (Joji Ohara) is working as a manager for the highly regarded Eshimaya clothing store. When he hears that the Eshimaya head (Hiroshi Hayashi) is planning to eventually pass the shop on to his adoptive son Yasujiro (Shozaburo Date), Kinbei loses it completely and starts on a spree of murder and conspiracy meant to ruin the lives of Yasujiro and those closest to him. He racks up a surprisingly high body count during his vile work, sinking his first victim, Okiku (Noriko Kitazawa) in the titular pond after he ruined her marriage – and this being the kind of society it is, her life in the process.

But while women may have little power in life in this society, their ghostly grudges can eventually destroy even the worst of villains.

This lovely Shintoho kaidan movie directed by Masaki Mori is apparently based on a popular story by Encho Sanyutei whose 60th death anniversary the production was made for. In its tone, the resulting film doesn’t play out like a story with realistic character psychology at all, but has the moral clarity of a folk tale. Kinbei and his female cohort Osato (Reiko Seto), as well as the Eshimaya head, are utterly despicable people without a single redeeming – or just human – character trait, whereas Yasujiro and his wife are the kind of soft goody-two-shoes who can’t even comprehend of anything their society does not approve of. Which would make them perfectly annoying heroes, if the film would spent any time on them as anything but the victims of Kinbei’s (and Osato’s and Eshiyama’s) horridness.

Like in a good folk tale, this never feels like the film is strictly lacking in character depth but rather as if it decides its tale is so archetypal, psychology would only get in the way, and be completely besides the point anyway. The point in this case being to show horrible people doing as horrible things to people as 1959’s Japan allows in a movie (which is to say, pretty damn much), and seeing them from time to time frightened by and eventually dispatched by the female victims of their sins.

Mori realizes the mix of only semi-polite atrocities and moody ghost appearances with great verve, portraying Kinbei as despicable as a man can possible get without eating babies, finding much expressionist beauty in vengeful ghosts, and creating a mood that is in turns lurid and brooding. It’s a bit like poetry to people like me.

Of course, if you want, you can find at least an implicit criticism of feudal Japan (and therefore the people glorifying it in ‘59) in the film, the way rigid societal structures enable Kinbei and bring out the worst in people like Eshimaya, of how women are used and abused (without a ghostly intervention, Eshimaya would rape his own daughter-in-law, and no law of the time would care), and of how the blind belief in his society of someone like Yasujiro makes it impossible for him to even understand when its rules are used against him and the woman he supposedly loves. Frankly, I’m not sure if any of this was actually on Mori’s mind or if I’m only reading this into the film (or even the Japanese ghost story as a whole). In any case, The Ghost of Kagami Pond is a pretty great example of a kaidan movie.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: Lock The Bets.

To Your Last Death aka The Malevolent (2019): There’s hardly any horror animation coming from the USA, but even with that state of affairs, there’s no reason for anyone not into certain forms of sadomasochism to inflict this thing as directed by Jason Axinn on themselves. The best thing there is to say about the movie is that it managed to acquire some name actors, so Ray Wise rants, William Shatner babbles, Bill Moseley does a great Bill Moseley imitation, and so on. One can’t help but think that actual voice actors would have been a better investment as well as cheaper, but even then, there’d still be primitive animation with bland design and the script to cope with. The less said about the animation, the better; the script tries for the en vogue bashing of the rich but does so with no wit, without even the little insight you need for this sort thing, showing neither intelligence nor coming up with even a single interesting idea.

Emma (2020): Fair warning: I’m not an admirer of Jane Austen’s smug and self-satisfied style of irony that only ever snarks at things but does sod all to change them at the best of times – I’m more of a Bronte kind of guy. However, Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Austen’s “Emma” has problems all of its own making, namely a love for emotional abstraction and ironic distance that makes Austen’s work feel emotionally involved, and a tendency to aestheticize every single frame so that it basically screams “2020!” without any reason for it apart from the film feeling the need to tell its audience how very clever it is. It’s like The Favourite without the gall, the smarts, the empathy hidden behind cynicism and without the point in this. However, from time to time – I blame the excellent cast as lead by Anya Taylor-Joy – the film suddenly stops posing for a scene or two, threatening to turn its talking clothes horses into actual people for good, only to fall back into smug self-satisfaction and that deathly distance a couple of minutes later.

I honestly have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking.

Yella (2007): But let’s end on a less annoyed note. Nominally, German director Christian Petzold’s Yella reworks the basic set-up of the grand Carnival of Souls here, but in practice he’s using just as much of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, showing himself in typically German fashion more interested in the psychological than the ghostly and weird. This is still a wonderful film, mind you, just don’t go in expecting a movie that’s in dialogue with Herk Harvey’s film. What we get is a sort-of thriller about love grown bitter, abuse and most of all the horrors of late capitalism and how they twist and shape people, all embodied in a great, nuanced performance by Nina Hoss.

As is necessary for this sort of material, Petzold is great at handling ambiguities, portraying states of mind, personality and world that have drifted into liminal spaces. Small town Germany and the kind of German city Petzold usually treats always have that quality of liminality, an air of irreality one has to have experienced to believe, so they are a perfect fit for a cinematic ghost story. It sometimes still surprises me so few German filmmakers make any ghost stories.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Hard Target (1993)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

When Nat Binder (Yancy Butler) comes to New Orleans looking for her long-time estranged, now missing, father, she doesn’t expect to find out he was homeless. She certainly didn’t suspect he has become the victim of one of the hunts for the ever popular Most Dangerous Game non-American (possibly even European!) bad guys Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo) hold for their rich perverted clients. Their particular shtick is that the hunt’s designated prey consists exclusively of former military personnel who have fallen on hard times; don’t worry though, they’re certainly not going to play fair when helping their clientele getting their victim.

Given how little Fouchon and his cronies care for human life (or a sensible way to keep their hunts secret, now that I think about it), Nat would probably have a rather short life too, if she didn’t fall in early with former special forces super Cajun Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose accent is totally not Belgian, no sir), a man quite able to turn the tables on these particular hunters. Well, he was born on the Bayou, etc.

Oh, I still remember how cranky I was in the 90s when John Woo’s move to Hollywood turned out the way that it did, with the director seemingly trading downwards in every aspect of filmmaking, and quickly turning all his stylistic idiosyncrasies into mere tics and shtick. Now, more than twenty years later, it has become quite a bit easier to look at the resulting films with a more fair eye, and to possibly even enjoy them.

Sure, the part where Woo’s films were now seemingly crapping doves without any good reason (turns out when you overuse a metaphor this much, it ends up signifying nothing whatsoever) is still there, but when I start to let myself be dissuaded by a handful of random dove appearances, I really should stop watching the kind of films I do. But then, Woo’s particular style of dance-like ultra-violence and slow motion melodrama always was and is a thing teetering on the border of self-parody, as directorial styles following the dogma that style is substance (which I am wont to believe in too) inevitably must be; it’s a question of individual taste where awesome stylized gun opera starts and where silly nonsense begins, or if there’s indeed any difference between them that matters.

Re-watching Hard Target after a decade or so, I realized how close the film actually is to Woo’s Hong Kong work, or rather, how much those films traded in the same kind of silliness and excess. I also realized I’m now very much willing to just go with the sort of world where doves teleport in at the slightest provocation, where crossbow bolts inevitably fly around in slow motion, where gun hands are positioned in the most improbable ways, and where things explode or catch fire for the slightest of reasons, even when the film these things happen in was made in the USA. In fact, I’m at a point in my always regressing taste where I find stuff like this absolutely lovely, and wouldn’t have the film any other way. Particularly when these tasty morsels come with an added dose of kitschy (but not necessarily untrue) poverty porn, the (completely true) insight that all rich people are evil while the poor have dignity and interesting haircuts, as well as a scene where Wilford Brimley rides in with bow and arrow like a particularly absurd version of the cavalry, and shoots as if he were trying our for the role of Old Man Hawkeye. Indeed, that’s all included in the film – even the Brimley stuff that somehow didn’t manage to give 17-year old me, who took these things far more seriously in exactly the wrong way than I do now, a hernia when I watched it way back when in 1993. The resulting film is indeed pretty darn great.

This does – of course – have a lot to do with some other things Woo still was perfectly capable of when he went to the US. Namely, shooting damn great, tight yet overblown (or is it the other way around) action sequences that never bog down in self indulgence so much they are ever anything less than riveting. Woo has an eye for the set piece, a heart for the melodramatic impact of the physical action, for turning a potentially clichéd shoot-out into something memorable by just the right choice of scenery and props, and a – one suspects intrinsic – knowledge of just the appropriate rhythms between camera movement, the bodies of his stunt actors and actors, and editing. There’s absolutely nothing that isn’t great about the action here.

Woo even finds it in his heart to indulge his star’s greatest weakness, and let’s JCVD do That Kick again, and again, and again. It seems to have been an excellent way to get the man to relax in front of the camera too – at least Van Damme does some of his better acting work in this stage of his career here. Why, even his one-liner delivery is for once spot on and even charming. The rest of the cast (except for Yancy Butler who has very pretty eyes and exclusively acts by widening them and letting her mouth pop open and shut randomly) is rather great too, with Henriksen giving one of his patented villain performances with great gusto, and Vosloo working as the perfect foil, while Brimford is appropriately absurd (that’s a compliment), and everybody else dies quite enthusiastically.

So, I’m sorry to add another failure to the list, past me, but you were wrong again. Hard Target is pretty damn great.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

In short: Shamus (1973)

Sloppy yet well-groomed cat-loving private eye McCoy (Burt Reynolds) is hired by an eccentric, dog-loving millionaire (Ron Weyand) to recover a safe full of stolen diamonds. Or rather, he is supposed to find out who toasted the thief who most probably stole the stones with a flame thrower, which should probably lead to whoever has the diamonds now. As it goes in cases like this, McCoy meets all kinds of weird and violent people, some of them, like living encyclopaedia Springy (Larry Block), already of his acquaintance, others, like the oh-so-hilariously named Colonel Hardcore (John P. Ryan), new even to him. Obviously, various groups beat him up severely, others are trying to kill him, and, McCoy being a private eye played by Burt Reynolds in the 70s, he sleeps with rather a lot of women.

McCoy might also encounter true love in the form Alexis (Dyan Cannon), a woman willing to wear some of the most horrible woman’s fashion the 70s came up with. Unfortunately, her former jock brother is somehow involved in the whole business.

And if I say somehow, I mean exactly that, for veteran (mostly TV) director Buzz Kulik’s Burt vehicle Shamus holds to the tradition of hard-boiled detective stories and films and makes it as difficult as possible for a viewer to answer precise questions of who, what, how, when and why of the crimes involved. Heck, it can even be difficult to exactly understand what crimes we’re talking about, or why they were committed. Now, this doesn’t play out quite as confusing as it may sound, for while the details of anything crime-related never become quite clear, the film has enough of a through-line to provide the big picture. Plus, it’s clear that the people who are trying to kill a character played by Burt Reynolds are generally bad guys.

And really, this simply isn’t a film about a guy solving a complicated crime case but one about Burt Reynolds swaggering and smirking through scenes, as always in this phase of his career giving the impression of having the time of his life and projecting that in a way a viewer can’t help but share in the feeling a bit; about Reynolds encountering weirdoes, freaks and violent assholes (the latter so he can punch someone or get his ass kicked like a good fictional PI) in a New York that isn’t quite grimy, but never so clean these characters don’t fit in it; and, this coming from a more innocent (and also less judgemental) time, about Burt having a lot of sex without emotional entanglements, until he meets someone where getting entangled seems perfectly fine to him.

Kulik’s direction isn’t spectacular, but his somewhat workmanlike approach to filmmaking never gets in the way of the character actors Reynolds encounters either. The action scenes aren’t exactly high art but get the job done in an unfussy way that is never less than entertaining. What more could anyone asked of Burt Reynolds vehicle from this era?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Troublesome Night (1997)

Original title: 陰陽路

This is the first film in a locally obviously well-liked horror comedy anthology series from Hong Kong that went for the record by getting up to a whopping nineteen movies, most of which are not terribly easy to find with subtitles around here. In this as well as its horror comedy style and its love for mining local folklore, the Troublesome Nights series is comparable to the Filipino Shake, Rattle & Roll series, though the cultural sensibilities of Hong Kong and the Philippines, as well as the folklore used, are of course very different from each other.

The four tales in this anthology were directed by Steve Cheng, Victor Tam, and Herman Yau and feature a whole murder of well-known faces, from Simon Lui, who is the host of the tales but also takes part in some of them, over Louis Koo, to Teresa Mak and Law Lan.

All of the tales have pretty simple plots of a kind anyone with a basic knowledge of ghost movies from Hong Kong will have no trouble recognizing – there’s the tale about some young people working in the film biz getting punished for their shenanigans in a graveyard, followed by a very traditional phone call with the dead story, a ghostly “romance” of doubtful consensually and finally a visit to a cinema that turns out to be as haunted as London.

The stories, however, play out rather more complicated than they sound described. In part, it’s because of the way the film connects the stories, with side-characters turning into protagonists, and ghosts, the host – or his mole-foreheaded “twin brother” interacting with the characters, and every tale told with a raconteur’s love for the narrative detour. The tendency to go off in strange directions could have turned out rather annoying, but it’s actually a huge part of the film’s charm, giving the directors opportunity to make fun of the HK film biz in a companionable manner, or just to lighten things up with one curious idea or another.

Tonally, this is far from CATIII horror or many HK horror comedies, featuring as it does little gore or centipede puking, nor going the extreme slapstick route. It’s comparable to a PG-13 movie in its hardness, just without the teen fixation and the moping. The stories do get crazier the longer the film goes on, though, with the first couple keeping their weirder sensibilities to intros and outros, before the rest of the film starts acting crazy in a very charming manner. Did you know that ghost sex caused by your ill-advised wearing of red underwear during the night will eventually turn your hair red too? Or that ghosts might be distracted by being allowed to beat up a Feng Shui master whose qualifications come from a TV quiz show? And let’s not even talk about the cheap yet awesome spacial shenanigans the final story gets up too.

All of this might not be coherent, and will certainly only scare only the most easy to scare, but it’s deeply fun, presenting local folklore and ghost beliefs with a sense for the charming and the goofy that makes it pretty impossible not to like Troublesome Night.

Particularly since the film is a fine example of the virtues of late 90s Hong Kong cinema, too – we all have suffered through the vices enough – presenting itself much slicker in looks than the energetic yet more ramshackle films of only a couple of years before, though in this case not becoming so slick as to turn boring and curiously lifeless. There’s a sense of a handful of directors using technological and logistical advances with an eye for fun first, and edginess or plastic sexiness last, here, resulting in a film that contemporizes things the traditional material it is working with nicely without flattening it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

In short: Cabin by the Lake (2000)

Screenwriter Stanley Caldwell (Judd Nelson) is taking his research very seriously indeed. To wit, tasked with writing about a serial killer who drowns women and creates a – pretty tacky looking – underwater garden out of their corpses, he has started kidnapping young women in LA, holding them imprisoned in the lake side hut he lives in, and indeed eventually drowns and tackily gardens them.

Things have been going well for Stanley until now, for Boone (Michael Weatherly), the only policeman in the area who is ever doing anything at all, is a pretty idiot, and people seem to think Judd Nelson’s eye bugging and grimacing is totally normal. The situation changes when Stanley’s newest victim, Kimberley Parsons (Daniella Evangelista), turns out to be rather tough to drown. She survives his attempt at killing her without him noticing (and despite suffering from hydrophobia), and makes her way to the local police. But how can an idiot like Boone catch a serial killer? Calling in actual cops would be right out, so he and Kimberley enlist a local troupe of special effects people to create a fake Kimberley corpse with a camera eye to catch the killer in the act of gardening.

And that’s obviously where Davis Stephens’s script for Po-Chih Leong’s USA Network TV movie loses it completely, stumbling from one stupid idea to the next, shifting tone without rhyme or reason and ending on a deeply unsatisfying climax that even feels the need to have Kimberley re-caught by Stanley to come up with anything dramatic at all.

It’s a bit of a shame, too, for there’s material for either a dark satire about classic Hollywood personality types and their closeness to serial killers in the movie, or for a tight horror thriller about a woman who grows into her own fighting off a serial killer. The film’s problem is that it seems unable to decide which one of these movies it wants to be, and clearly doesn’t find a tone to connect these rather different impulses. So it presents wild mood swings between broad black comedy, TV thriller, and something that’s probably meant to be darkly poetic horror, as if the viewer were zapping around between very different channels.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A Short Break in Transmissions

I'm taking a little time out from blogging. Normal service will resume on April, 14th. Take care until then, dear imaginary readers!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Three Films Make A Post: It'll never let you go

1917 (2019): As a technical feat, and an example of visually extremely beautiful filmmaking this war movie taking place in World War I, shot in two long shots, is an incredible achievement, deserving all the copycats of its tech that’ll surely follow. It’s a film I found myself appreciating on the level of craft a great deal. However, I believe it is exactly this focus – I’m tempted to say fixation - on the technical that makes the film lose emotional impact for me, the humanity it is trying to speak of buried under layers of prettiness and technical chops until it can hardly move. No character in the film has an actual personality, but then, director Sam Mendes’s structural decisions make personalities pretty unimportant, what with no interaction between characters ever having any impact later on in the movie; a swelling score alone is not enough to make me care. Philosophically, we do learn that war is indeed hell, but the why and the how seem to interest Mendes as little as treating his characters as anything beyond ciphers with suffering facial expressions.

Shelter Island (2003): Despite a couple of pleasantly weird details – the film’s protagonist played by Ally Sheedy is a pro golfer turned motivational speaker for example – Geoffrey Schaaf’s thriller about the plot a million late night TV thrillers followed in the decade before, is about as bland as they come. Not clever enough to do anything interesting with the slight variations in its set-up, not sleazy enough to tickle the exploitation bone, and as obvious as “twisty” thrillers come, this one’s about as interesting as watching a middle-aged guy fall asleep watching it. It’s pretty short, though.

The Man with the Magic Box aka Czlowiek z magicznym pudelkiem (2017): But let’s end this on a high note, with this weird (in all the best ways) Polish movie by Bodo Kox concerning a dystopian society that feels like a culturally Polish variation of the kind of society Terry Gilliam would be into making a movie about, psychic time travel, and love across class divides. It’s full of brilliant little ideas realized with the kind of verve that’s usually the result of a fecund imagination coming to life, driven by a weirdness that has its own internal logic, and shows a view of life that’s like an Eastern European shrug that can hardly disguise an honest romanticism.

It’s also really beautiful to look at, Kox turning found locations into organic parts of a strange near future (and the strange land known as the past), while leads Olga Boladz and Piotr Polak breathe human life into characters other films would treat as abstract ideas.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Past Misdeeds: Magistrate Toyama: Falcon Magistrate (1957)

This is a re-run with only the slightest of edits, so please don’t ask me what the heck I was thinking when I wrote any given entry into this section.

Original title: はやぶさ奉行

Edo period Japan. Kagemoto Toyama (Chiezo Kataoka), known to his friends as Kinshiro, is the son of a well-respected magistrate. Father and son don’t see eye to eye at all because Kinshiro has spent parts of his life mixing it up with the lower classes and clearly not seeing anything wrong with that. In fact, father and son don’t seem to have spoken to each other for a long time, and that won’t change during the course of the film.

Still, when first a carpenter is murdered during a public swimming performance, then a second carpenter is struck down right in front of Kinshiro’s eyes, and finally a female acquaintance of his is murdered because she just might have seen something during the first murder, Kinshiro takes it upon himself to investigate. And wouldn’t you know it, his ability to speak eye to eye with commoners and his willingness to relate to people based on their merit instead of their class turns out to be quite the useful tool in an investigation that – this being the sort of film it is – of course leads him on the trail of a conspiracy to kill the shogun. Just as useful will be Kinshiro’s friendship with wealth-redistributing thief Nezumi Kozo, his sword fighting skills, and his ability to go undercover as a mildly eccentric, prostitute-charming carpenter.

Falcon Magistrate’s hero Kagemoto Toyama is an actual historical figure that must have enticed the popular imagination quite a bit, because the historical magistrate (who was quite liberal for his time and class as far as I understand, but certainly not as awesome as the fictional version) turned into a fictional one popping up in all kinds of popular fiction, kabuki plays, TV shows and a six or eight part (depending on which English language source you believe) series of Toei movies starring the prestigious jidai geki specialist actor and charisma bomb Chiezo Kataoka, of which this is the first one.

Toyama as folklore and pop culture sees him is quite the fascinating expression of the dreams of a highly classist society. He’s a samurai who respects the peasant class and even identifies with its members, who speaks truth to power and has the power and influence himself to serve justice particularly against the villains of his own class, all the while transgressing class borders as if they were the social construct they actually are, a character who is not just willing to team up with a thief like Nezumi but also shows a degree of humorous appreciation for the man’s deeds, even though he’s tutting at them. Nezumi for his part is a parallel case to Kagemoto, also based on a historical figure that grew into something much bigger than the real man probably was. In his own cycle, Nezumi Kozo (which is a nick name that translates into Rat Boy or Young Rat, people who speak Japanese tell me) is generally sticking it to the man, spurning those in power for their sins and giving their money to the poor.

There is of course a bit of paternalistic noblesse oblige in the Toyama character, though the film at hand doesn’t go very far into this part of the character – too authentic are his interactions with the non-ruling class characters, and he’s never making fun of them, as you’d otherwise see when this approach goes wrong.These still are – however you look at it – quite subversive heroes in their folkloric incarnations.

Toyama does keep quite a bit of this aura in this movie version directed by Kinnosuke Fukada (about whose work I know basically nothing, alas), which might come as a bit of a surprise in a genre that at this point in time probably drew at least some of its pull from the power of nostalgia, the wish of a post-war country for a simpler and clearer time. At least, that’s the view of the genre the more rebellious jidai geki and chambara films of the 60s and beyond seem to have been working against. The more films of the era before this new wave I see, the more I’m inclined to say that’s a half truth at best, though, the younger directors in their Sturm und Drang underplaying those qualities of the earlier films they are actually continuing.

Of course, Magistrate Toyama is not all subversion all the time. This is after all film where the not exactly nice and progressive shogun is saved from revolutionaries; though these are revolutionaries of the kind who really don’t want to change anything about the order of things but only about who’s sitting on top. One of the film’s conspirators is also only driven to the deed because he’s convinced the shogun has tasked him with a costly construction project to ruin him; given precedents in actual Tokugawa shogunate history, he’s probably even right. The thing is, Toyama isn’t setting out to investigate a threat against the shogunate, he’s setting out to find the reason why three innocents are murdered, and just tenaciously follows through where this leads him.

On a stylistic level, Falcon Magistrate is a very typical Toei jidai geki/pulpy mystery film, with the high technical level and the extremely solid and dependable cast that suggests. While Fukada isn’t a great stylist, he keeps things moving nicely, finds time for a handful of moodily shot scenes, some minor yet satisfying sword fight set pieces, and does a very fine job with the film’s dramatic climax as well as a pleasantly short, to the point, and effective court room courtyard scene to tie things up. I suspect it’s the sort of genre movie everyone involved in Toei’s production machine could have made in his sleep; it’s also very satisfying and enjoyable, if you care about the tales’ more subversive elements or not. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the joy of watching Chiezo Kataoka, at this point in time not looking like any sort of leading man you’d have found in a Hollywood film of the same era, but oozing easy charisma and a joy of living that makes him utterly believable as this particular hero.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

In short: Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite

Original title: Pikovaya dama. Chyornyy obryad

A group of Russian kids of surprisingly mixed ages play around with a mirror based ritual somewhat akin to good old Bloody Mary, conjuring up an entity known as the Queen of Spades. The Queen of Spades is a shorn-haired spectre with a nasty disposition and the habit of cutting a lock of hair from her victim of the moment as a sort of bad luck foreplay, and consequently, the mortality rate among the kids rises dramatically.

Eventually, the father of Anna (Alina Babak), the youngest of the kids, becomes involved, slowly starting to believe his daughter’s strange story, and doing his best to protect her and the other survivors.

PG-13-style horror movies are alive and well and apparently being made in Russia too, for director Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s Queen of Spades belongs to that part of the horror realm to the core, with all the problems that brings with it. The film’s main problem, and really a problem nearly all movies of this horror bracket suffer under, is a certain harmlessness even a handful of dead teens can’t hide, where nothing is ever allowed to have full emotional impact on audience or characters. There’s a heavy reliance on formula visible, with only very little attempt to do something terribly interesting with said formula and also disappointingly little about the film’s monster that seem culturally specific. The Queen of Spades could be directly transplanted into an American horror movie without any changes or cultural translation necessary, making the film’s central villain a bit more generic than you’d hope for.

However, while Podgaevskiy doesn’t move from the teen horror formula one iota, he does realize that formula more than just a little competently, with a series of perfectly competent and reasonably effective horror scenes – not all of them jump scare based – packaged into a well-paced movie.

It is most certainly a slick looking little film, the director really squeezing his budget – which did probably make Blumhouse look like Marvel - for all it is visually worth.

So Queen of Spades may not be a terribly exciting proposition if you’ve sat through a lot of films of its style, but I can’t honestly pretend it is not a well-made film.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

After Midnight (2019)

Abby (Brea Grant), the life and work partner of small town bar owner Hank (Jeremy Gardner, who also co-directs), suddenly disappears from their house, leaving behind a note that’s too vague for a goodbye note but also not exactly promising a quick return. Hank loses himself in memories of better times, when things between the couple were simple because they were young and very acutely in love, so problem fields we’ll learn about later like Abby’s hatred of small town life and Hank’s own troubles with change and making decisions about his life didn’t really come up.

His bout of depression isn’t the only thing haunting Hank right now, though, for ever since Abby went away, he has had nightly visits by some kind of creature that wants to get into his – as is traditional – middle-of-nowhere house and clearly wants to do him harm. Not surprisingly, nobody in town believes any of Hank’s wild tales about the creature, so he has to try to fight it off alone, increasingly losing his grip on his sanity while doing so. How that’s going to turn out if and when Abby should return, and what will all of this do to their relationship?

For the longest time, I wasn’t at all sure about Jeremy Gardner’s and Christian Stella’s horror and romance movie After Midnight, feeling rather sceptical that the leisurely pace would ever let the film arrive at anything amounting to a point, and not too keen on watching yet another guy in a movie having very much self-caused relationship troubles, with a monster that only seemed to be in there to be a somewhat strained metaphor. Slowly, though, I began to appreciate how well, and sometimes funnily, the film drew Hank and his world, how elegantly the directors already implicated all the things that would become Abby’s and Hank’s relationship troubles in Hank’s happy flashbacks, just without Hank and the audience noticing at the time.

Once Abby returns, the film very much proves that all of what came before did indeed have a point, with some wonderful dialogue scenes now talking about the difficulties of love and relationships once the endorphin-driven parts of it are over and the parts start that can be rather a lot like work, Grant and Gardner doing great jobs keeping this believable, lively and real. Here, the film isn’t making the classic mistake of making one of the two the asshole of the relationship, even though it is clearly Hank who has to change if he wants to continue with Abby, instead working on letting the audience understand where each one is coming from; very atypical for a film from the last couple of years, it’s not about judgement and who is in the wrong but about what kind of compromise is viable for these two to stay together.

After that, the film makes utterly lovely use of a standard romance trope in an awkward family dinner scene that had me smiling like a loon, adds the perfect jump scare, and ends in a way that makes it impossible not to realize that the early film’s lengths were indeed in there for a reason, slowly preparing the ground for the rest of the film and trusting in the audience to be patient and have a bit of trust.

In the end, After Midnight, turns out to be the best horror/romance combo since Benson and Moorhead’s Spring (another film that takes a bit of time preparing the viewer). And wouldn’t you know it, those guys produced this film, Benson also taking an acting turn as Abby’s somewhat asshat-ish sheriff brother. That’s the perfect company for what turns out to be a quietly excellent little movie.